Native American man serving 'de facto life sentence' for drug dealing. 'Why must I die in prison?'

·13 min read

Efrain Hidalgo Jr. isn't saying he's innocent. But he believes what happened to him was unjust.

In 2000, at the age of 27, Hidalgo was sentenced to 60 to 150 years in prison after being convicted of charges related to running a heroin drug ring.

The sentence was heralded at the time as the longest drug-related sentence in Pennsylvania history, and to this day it eclipses sentences for crimes like child sexual assault and third-degree murder. Hidalgo's defense attorney at the time told reporters that an appropriate sentence under state guidelines should probably have been about 10 years.

Efrain Hidalgo Jr. is pictured in a family photo at age 26 around Christmas before he was sentenced to 60 to 150 years in prison for crimes related to running a heroin drug ring. Hidalgo, now 48, argues his sentence was excessive.
Efrain Hidalgo Jr. is pictured in a family photo at age 26 around Christmas before he was sentenced to 60 to 150 years in prison for crimes related to running a heroin drug ring. Hidalgo, now 48, argues his sentence was excessive.

"This is probably the most extreme sentence I've ever seen in Pennsylvania for a drug case," said Maria Goellner, state policy director for the criminal justice reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She reviewed Hidalgo's case at USA TODAY's request. "I consider this a de facto life sentence."

Criminal justice reform advocates say Hidalgo’s sentence is excessive and emblematic of the U.S. criminal justice system’s harsh treatment of people of color. 

Central Pennsylvania's deeply red Blair County, where Hidalgo was sentenced, has a reputation among state officials and criminal justice reform advocates of imposing disproportionately long sentences on Black and brown people for drug crimes. In Hidalgo's case, the judge exceeded the prosecutor’s request and ordered Hidalgo to serve his sentences consecutively.

"Back then, the Blair County judges seemed to be in a contest to see who could give the longest terms on drug cases," said David Kaltenbaugh, an attorney handling Hidalgo's appeal.

The front page of The Daily Herald in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 27, 2000, touts the
The front page of The Daily Herald in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 27, 2000, touts the

A U.S. citizen and member of the Mohawk Nation of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario, Canada, Hidalgo will be 86, about a decade past the life expectancy for the average American man, when he gets his first chance at parole.

He's spent the past 21 years trying to get out sooner, filing appeals and a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Among his arguments: He was ineffectively represented by his court-appointed attorney, he was excessively sentenced, and the prosecution illegally withheld evidence from his attorney.

None has succeeded, for reasons legal and technical. His main problem, experts say, is that it's been so long since he was convicted and judges have wide discretion when imposing sentences.

Hidalgo's best chance to leave prison before he turns 86 probably comes down to discretion: a petition for clemency.

A half-dozen legal experts, academics and state officials, including a former head of the state Department of Corrections, say Hidalgo's punishment was abnormally harsh. 

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But cases like his are overshadowed by efforts to free those wrongfully convicted. Reformers say those efforts are important, but improper and excessive punishment of nonwhite defendants is a far greater and less-publicized problem.

"I don’t think the public is terribly concerned about procedural fairness; I think lawyers, judges and lawmakers ought to be," said Abbe Smith, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

"We have to look at sentencing," she said. "There are too many people locked up for too long, for too little."

Hidalgo says he was incredulous when he learned how long former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to prison for murdering George Floyd: 22½ years.

“I'm going on 22 years this August,” he emailed USA TODAY earlier this year. “Where is the justice for me? Why must I die in prison?”

A sentence befitting a drug kingpin

Authorities in 2000 charged Hidalgo with running a multistate heroin drug ring that brought drugs from Buffalo, New York, to sell in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Though police found no heroin on Hidalgo, they say others in his organization transported and sold it at his direction. Over a five-month investigation, investigators collected 1.68 grams of heroin. 

The front page of the Altoona Mirror on Sept. 27, 2000, shows a photo of Efrain Hidalgo Jr. under a headline reading,
The front page of the Altoona Mirror on Sept. 27, 2000, shows a photo of Efrain Hidalgo Jr. under a headline reading,

Michael Madeira, a Pennsylvania deputy attorney general, called Hidalgo a "kingpin" and said he made up to $800,000 selling heroin, according to news stories at the time. Hidalgo said in an interview his organization was relatively low-level, buying small bags of heroin for $15 apiece and selling them for $30 to $40.

"Did I deserve to come to prison? Yes, I've got to be held accountable for my actions," Hidalgo said in an interview from a Pennsylvania prison near Albion, in the northwestern corner of the state.

"But to do what you did, to give (me) that time, that doesn't add up," he said.

Hidalgo had no serious criminal history. As a minor, he was found guilty of disorderly conduct, and at age 18 he was fined for underage drinking, according to a presentencing report.

During the sentencing hearing, prosecutors relied on trial testimony to estimate Hidaldo's drug ring trafficked an average of 400 bags, totaling 16 grams of heroin, on each trip. The judge used that estimate to impose mandatory minimum sentences.

Efrain Hidalgo Jr. poses for a photo with his mother Frances Hope while he was in prison in his early 30s. Hidalgo, now 48, was sentenced to 60 to 150 years in a Pennsylvania prison 21 years ago. He said he believes the sentence was excessive.
Efrain Hidalgo Jr. poses for a photo with his mother Frances Hope while he was in prison in his early 30s. Hidalgo, now 48, was sentenced to 60 to 150 years in a Pennsylvania prison 21 years ago. He said he believes the sentence was excessive.

Mandatory minimums were ruled unconstitutional by the state's Supreme Court in 2015, but the decision has not been applied retroactively.

"My son made a simple mistake that cost him his life," said Frances Hope, 66, a retired home health worker in Ontario. "If I had money, my son would not have spent all these years in prison."

Secret recordings. Broken treaties?

During the trial, prosecutors relied on the testimony of an informant to describe phone conversations between him and Hidalgo. Prosecutors had recordings of those conversations but acknowledged they couldn't legally use them under case law at the time.

"The Commonwealth is between a proverbial rock and a hard place – where we have that evidence, it is a violation of his (Hidalgo's) constitutional right to play or use it against him – but I'm asking for his (the informant's) independent recollection of his telephone conversation," Madeira told the judge.

Prosecutors did not turn the recordings over to the defense. Hidalgo's attorneys say the prosecution withheld potentially exculpatory evidence, known as a Brady violation, in violation of Hidalgo's constitutional rights.

In this April 27, 2007, photo, then-Centre County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Michael Madeira speaks during a news conference in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Madeira said he referred a report of alleged child sexual abuse by former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky in 2009 to state prosecutors because of an 'indirect connection' to Sandusky's family.
In this April 27, 2007, photo, then-Centre County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Michael Madeira speaks during a news conference in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Madeira said he referred a report of alleged child sexual abuse by former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky in 2009 to state prosecutors because of an 'indirect connection' to Sandusky's family.

"They hid and they continue to hide those tapes," Kaltenbaugh said. "Whether they're exculpatory or not, that's not a decision for the prosecutor to make."

It's unclear whether the prosecution used the tapes to prepare for trial. Kaltenbaugh said he believes prosecutors and the informant did listen to them, especially because they didn't know if the judge would order prosecutors to turn the tapes over to the defense. 

Madeira did not respond to a request for comment, and Molly Stieber, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, did not make him available. 

Hidalgo's appeals include an unusual argument. By prosecuting him, he says, Pennsylvania broke promises made roughly 230 years ago in treaties between the United States and the Iroquois Confederacy, which includes Hidalgo's Mohawk tribe.

The treaties, he argues, required the U.S. to notify the Six Nations or the Mohawk Nation of Hidalgo's crimes before his arrest.

Efrain Hidalgo Jr. (center) is pictured with his family in prison while in his early 30s.
Efrain Hidalgo Jr. (center) is pictured with his family in prison while in his early 30s.

Scholars told USA TODAY that treaty law is complex. It's not always clear if treaties apply, whether they apply outside of Indian lands, and if the rights apply to Natives legally recognized by Canada but not the United States. 

Judge: 'I have no regrets'

In the fall of 2000, as Hidalgo held a prayer feather in his hand, Blair County Court of Common Pleas Judge Norman D. Callan called the sentencing guidelines "totally inadequate."

A group opposing the reelection of Blair County Judge Norman Callan ran an ad in the Nov. 4, 2001, edition of the Altoona Mirror, saying the judge had been
A group opposing the reelection of Blair County Judge Norman Callan ran an ad in the Nov. 4, 2001, edition of the Altoona Mirror, saying the judge had been

He ruled that Hidalgo's sentences for nine felony convictions would run consecutively –turning what might have been a 10- to 20-year sentence to one between 60 and 150 years.

In court, Callan said a lengthier sentence was necessary because of the "infectious nature of the poison" Hidalgo brought into the community.

"We can only imagine," he said, how much harm resulted from addicts trying to get money to buy Hidalgo's drugs.

In another case around the same time, an appeals court said Callan had abused his sentencing discretion by focusing on the seriousness of a defendant's crime without considering factors such as his character and minimal criminal record.

Callan lost reelection about a year after he sentenced Hidalgo to prison. In a local newspaper ad, a group opposing Callan said he was "too wrong for too long" and cited examples in which it said he had ruled crucial evidence was inadmissible or threw out a jury's verdict. 

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Callan remembered Hidalgo's case and the feather he held to keep calm. He told USA TODAY that Hidalgo's sentence was within his discretion.

"I have no regrets and I don't think he deserves any slack," said Callan, now in private practice. "He's paying the price of the piper, for all of the money he made before."

A stiff sentence for a Native American in a mostly white county

Altoona, the largest city in central Pennsylvania's Blair County, once served as a transportation hub between the North and South. In the 1820s, the area became home to formerly enslaved people who helped build Appalachia's steel and coal industries. Far fewer Black residents were left by the 1920s, when Altoona had the largest Ku Klux Klan chapter in the state.

About 40 robed members of the Ku Klux Klan walk down the steps of Highland Hall, an annex of the Blair County courthouse, in Hollidaysbug, Pennsylvania, on June 15, 1996. Klan members traded slurs and insults with residents opposed to their white supremacist views. The verbal exchanges stopped short of violence, due largely to a full turnout by police during the Klan's hour-long rally in this central Pennsylvania town.
About 40 robed members of the Ku Klux Klan walk down the steps of Highland Hall, an annex of the Blair County courthouse, in Hollidaysbug, Pennsylvania, on June 15, 1996. Klan members traded slurs and insults with residents opposed to their white supremacist views. The verbal exchanges stopped short of violence, due largely to a full turnout by police during the Klan's hour-long rally in this central Pennsylvania town.

Today Blair County is 95% white and 2% Black, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data. Natives are a fraction of a percent. 

Black people in Blair County sentenced for the same drug trafficking crime were roughly 18 times more likely to be sent to state prison, where longer sentences are typically served, than white people, according to a USA TODAY analysis of 2018 data from the state's sentencing commission. Statewide, that disparity is five times. 

"I don’t think it’s wrong to be happy a drug dealer goes to jail, but it should strike some chords when all of them aren’t sentenced the same," said Andrae Holsey, president of the Blair County branch of the NAACP. "There's no reason why people of color should not have equal opportunity when it comes to dispensing justice."

Pennsylvania's recently retired secretary of corrections, John Wetzel, says Blair County's sentencing disparities show what's wrong with the criminal justice system.

In recent years, Pennsylvania lawmakers have proposed legislation that would take a second look at lengthy prison sentences, especially among lifers. The state has the third-largest population of people serving de facto life sentences of 50 years or more, according to a 2021 report by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice reform advocacy group.

Blair County District Attorney Peter J. Weeks wrote in a letter to USA TODAY that his office aggressively prosecutes drug crimes, but he disagrees "with any claim that Blair County disproportionately sentences people of color to longer sentences for drug crimes."

Weeks, who became district attorney in April 2020, said he prefers that first-time drug trafficking offenders are sentenced to rehabilitation, not prison, if there are no aggravating factors. 

Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, a former public defender and district attorney who heads the Pennsylvania Attorney General's recently formed Conviction Integrity Section, said in an interview that sentences can vary widely depending on the county. 

"The location where this happened had a terrible drug problem," Lazzari-Strasiser said, "and maybe it was a message."

Native Americans more likely to be incarcerated

Nationwide, the Native American jail population grew 85% between 2000 and 2019, not including jails on tribal lands, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based organization that opposes mass incarceration. That's compared to an 18% overall growth in jail populations. 

Native Americans are 38% more likely to be incarcerated than the U.S. population as a whole, and twice as likely as white Americans, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

That's if the data exists at all. Native American prisoners are frequently misclassified or simply called "other." Hidalgo was classified as Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American by different state agencies.

In an interview with USA TODAY, Callan agreed that people of color are overrepresented in the state's prisons, but he raised a discredited argument to explain why.

"Whether it's Native American, Hispanic American, African American," he said, "there's a disproportionate number in prison because they do a disproportionate amount of crime."

Does Hidalgo deserve clemency?

Legal experts say Hidalgo's best chance of getting out of prison early is probably his petition for the governor to commute his sentence. But clemency is "a very political process," Smith said. "And Mr. Hidalgo, like most people in prison, doesn't have a constituency," especially in a state with no Native lands.

In a sometimes emotional video interview last month, Hidalgo said he is no longer the man he once was. Now 48, he said he has become a model inmate who lives on the honor block.

Efrain Hidalgo, 48, speaks to a USA TODAY reporter via video from a prison near Albion, in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania. He said he deserved to go to prison.
Efrain Hidalgo, 48, speaks to a USA TODAY reporter via video from a prison near Albion, in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania. He said he deserved to go to prison.

Hidalgo's excessive sentence is "precisely the reason why our body exists," said Brandon Flood, secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.

But a lead investigator for the Blair County district attorney "doubled down" on the punishment in a September 2020 letter opposing clemency, Flood said. He said he could not provide the letter to USA TODAY, but he shared excerpts.

The investigator, Randy Feathers, wrote to the Pardon Board on behalf of Weeks' office, noting that he had talked with a former prosecutor and a retired Altoona police sergeant, both of whom handled the case.

All are "opposed to any type of clemency," Feathers wrote. Their reasons include the "devastating impact" Hidalgo's drug ring had on the community, the "many drug deaths and ruined lives" directly attributed to his network, Hidalgo's "threats of violence during his reign as a drug kingpin," his lack of remorse and cooperation, and use of juveniles for drug transactions.

Hidalgo said no trial testimony showed anyone died from his operation, and only one minor was involved.

Feathers did not reply to a request for comment. But Norman Young, the retired police investigator cited in the letter, told USA TODAY he is "not necessarily opposed" to Hidalgo's clemency, especially if he's remorseful and has a good prison record.

"Under the right circumstances, I would think – you know, he deserves to have an opportunity to maybe get out," Young said.

"Sentences at the time were mind-boggling, to be honest with you," Young said. "I guess it was just the climate back then."

Last week the Board of Pardons heard a clemency petition from one of Hidalgo's co-defendants, who was sentenced to 39 to 78 years in prison. The vote was tied. Flood said he'll be able to file a request for consideration because the full board was not present for the vote.

Another co-defendant is serving a sentence of 18 to 62 years at the same prison as Hidalgo.

'I'd like my son to come home'

John Fetterman, lieutenant governor and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 2022, chairs the state's pardon board. He said he can't comment on Hidalgo's petition, but he said Pennsylvanians should ask themselves whether the state's prisons should become geriatric facilities.

Efrain Hidalgo Jr. has become a prolific painter while in prison, sending works like this back to his family.
Efrain Hidalgo Jr. has become a prolific painter while in prison, sending works like this back to his family.

“Is there value in seeing (people) carried out in a pine box?" Fetterman asked.

Hope, Hidalgo's mother, said he has "missed out on so, so much," including his sister's wedding and the death of his stepdad. "I'd like my son to come home. I don't want him to die in there or I die out here without him."

In prison, Hidalgo said, he earned his GED certificate, learned to paint and play the guitar, and became an EPA-certified refrigeration technician.

He said he wants to become a productive member of society and believes he can help Native youths in his community avoid his mistakes.

But more than anything, "I want to go home," Hidalgo said. "I'm tired."

Tami Abdollah is a USA TODAY national correspondent covering inequities in the criminal justice system, send tips via direct message @latams or email tami(at)usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is Native American man's drug sentence a case for sentencing reform?

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